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"Uncle Jimmy"

1898 text from reference (14) in the Bibliography


The Ballast Island hermit, commonly known as "Uncle Jimmy" was a man with a history - supposititiously at least - though the haps and mishaps of his career were never quite clear to the public. However, as the old man was a bachelor and given to solitude, observers who took romantic views of existence, surmised that a love affair was somehow tangled up in the web of his life. Though averse to general society, old Jimmy was mild tempered, and kindly disposed toward any whom he chanced to meet.


At the period when he first took up his abode on Ballast Island, and for many years afterward, his weather beaten cabin was the only human habitation there existing, save the shattered remains of an old shed that had once been used by gillnetters as a rendezvous. His only companions were the proverbial dog and cat which found a snug abiding place beneath his roof, and a horse and cow sheltered in a roughly improvised stable. A portion of the island was cleared land, affording opportunity for tillage and pasturage. The remainder formed a picturesque tangle of Basswood and elm, cedar growths, wild grape vines and other undomesticated shrubberry. Eagles built their nests undisturbed in the tall trees, and when the heavens were black with clouds and storms swept by, mad with delight sea gulls screamed, and wildly plunged into the breakers which whitened on the reef. Waves mounted the rocky walls of weather-ward shores, flinging foam flecks into overhanging boughs and filling caverned niches with a bellowing thunder. With spring time came troops of the scarlet-winged blackbird, thrush, and whip-poor-will, the wood was resonant with song, while the turf formed a carpet of wild wood bloom. Summer unveiled pictures of gold and the trees covered with abundant foliage cast over the cabin roof shadows cool and deep. The birds nested, and short winged fledgelings hopped about on the mossy ridge pole chirping their delight.


With fading summer, autumnal fires kindled the maples until they flamed with scarlet and gold. Sumachs reddened and wild grapes purpled on the vines. With winter's advent the trees were bared of all save empty nests. Dismantled vines swung listless. The Canadian blasts swept down flurries of snow, and rigid ice plains glistened where blue waves had dashed. Such were the scenes which environed this solitary but charming retreat.


Excepting when a party of fishermen or pleasure seekers beached their boats upon the gravelled shore, or when the owner came to look after the place, few changes save those wrought by the changing seasons varied the monotony of the hermit's life. Having voluntarily chosen this mode of existence however, Uncle Jimmy was presumably satisfied with his choice, finding in solitude a species of happiness unattainable elsewhere.


As years went by and the natural attractions of the archipelago came to be more and more appreciated by visitors from abroad, Ballast Island was purchased by city capitalists. A club house and numerous cottages were built, and in a little while our hero found himself surrounded by gay crowds from the very center of city life and fashion. This innovation must have cost the old man some pangs of bitterness, but the invaders were kindly disposed toward their predecessor, placing upon him but few restrictions. Warmed by courteous treatment the old man exhibited so many good traits, that he eventually became a great favorite among guests during their summer sojourn at the island.


Uncle Jimmy had been accustomed to procuring supplies, consisting of provision, wearing apparel, and notions, in the shops and stores of Put-in-Bay, rowing across the channel in a small boat and carrying with him - by way of barter cat-fish, which he had taken on his hooks, or products of the soil. His wants, being few and simple, were fully supplied in this way and these trips to the "Bay" were said to have been his only excursions. For years he had not set foot on any of the steamers which constantly plied between island and mainland. One day, however, seized by some unaccountable impulse, or driven by some unusual business transaction, Uncle Jimmy boarded one of the island steamers for Sandusky.


Commanded by a thoroughbred captain who knew and could handle her as deftly as a lady handles a fan, this staunch steamer had for years made her accustomed trips day after day, had threaded narrow island passages, dodging rock and reef, unscathed in daylight and darkness, in storm and calm.


The steamer had proven thoroughly trustworthy, and on that beautiful morning when Uncle Jimmy leaned over the railing and gazed upon the fast receding shores of Ballast Island, his mind was as calm and unruffed as the still blue waters, nor among the passengers was there any premonition of danger. However, in the afternoon of that day people of the surrounding islands were startled by a jarring report which came echoing over intervening miles of water. Men at work in vineyard and orchard paused to listen.


"A blast in the limestone quarries of the peninsula" was the explanation suggested and received, and the men continued their work.


At Put-in Bay a knot of men lounged at the door of the telegraph office while the instrument clicked off a message. The operator scanned the cablegram received and an excited exclamation burst from his lips.


"What is it?" and the gaping crowd closed quickly about him. The message read as follows:


SANDUSKY, O., May 18th, 18--.

"At 3:30 P.M. the island steamer  ----- blew up off Kelley Island. Nearly all on board are injured or killed outright."


At Sandusky the wharves were black with crowds of people when the wrecked steamer was towed back to the harbor from whence she had departed but an hour before.


Scalded, blistered, disfigured by escaping steam, the dead and disabled were carried ashore. Among the number was Uncle Jimmy, not dead, but scalded almost beyond the consciousness of pain. All was done that human skill could do to kindle anew the failing life spark but to no purpose, and one night a clergyman summoned to his bedside administered the holy sacrament, and while a prayer breathed from the lips of the dying man, the failing eyes fastened upon the crucifix, held before him and so remained until the light in them faded -- a life unobtrusive yet full of unspoken pathos was ended.


The remains were conveyed for interment to the little burial ground at Put-in-Bay. The deceased was without relatives to attend him in his last moments, or to direct his final obsequies, but among the Ballast Island summer patrons were found friends who, though representatives of wealth and social position, esteemed it a privilege to gather at the grave of the humble hermit, to scatter choice flowers about the casket, and to mingle tears of tenderness and sympathy with the earth that fell upon it.


Among these friends was a prominent representative of Ballast resort, by whom a slab of solid marble was afterwards placed above the mound. Upon it the visitor who may chance to wander through the beautiful and picturesque island cemetery may read: 



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Revised: 21 Jul 2008 07:50:13.

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